Drew Smyly will start once for the Hens before moving to Detroit to pitch for the Tigers in his second pro season.
ERIE TIMES-NEWS/Janet B. Campbell
When Phil Nevin was asked last season about the youth of his pitching staff, the Mud Hens manager didn't mince words.
"I'm not big on worrying about stuff like that," he said. "If you can pitch, you can pitch. And these guys all can pitch."
Many of those same young arms return to form the nucleus of Toledo's starting rotation in 2012. And that group of young pitchers -- left-handers Duane Below, Andy Oliver, Adam Wilk, Drew Smyly and Casey Crosby, and eventually right-hander Jacob Turner -- are very similar.
They are young, with the 26-year-old Below the "oldest" of the group, and almost all gained experience in the upper levels of Detroit's organization last season.
And to use Nevin's words, "these guys can pitch."
The most experienced member of this group is Below, the Britton, Mich., native who was drafted by Detroit in the 19th round of the 2006 draft. While he lost some time to Tommy John surgery in 2009, he proved he was healthy in 2010 with Double-A Erie by going 7-12 with a 4.93 ERA.
Last season he was arguably the Mud Hens' best starter, posting a 9-4 record and 3.13 ERA. The 6-2, 205-pounder would have ranked among the International League leaders in ERA had he thrown enough innings in Toledo, but he earned a promotion to Detroit on July 20 by going 3-0 with a 2.08 ERA in his last four starts here.
Below spent the rest of the season with the Tigers, making two starts before settling into a bullpen role. He finished the season with an 0-2 record and 4.34 ERA in 14 appearances in Detroit.
"He still needs to refine some things," Tigers pitching coach Jeff Jones said of Below, who enters this season as the Tigers' 21st-best prospect, according to Baseball America. "He needs to be a little more consistent with his breaking ball, but he locates his fastball pretty well."
Below said pitching with the Tigers last season taught him a lot of things that he plans to use this year.
"I watch the pitchers to learn how they attack hitters, even when they don't have their best stuff," he said. "And I watched to see the things those pitchers do to help keep their team in the game.
"I've tried to pay attention and learn, especially how to make adjustments from pitch to pitch rather than from inning to inning."
Consistency and ability to locate pitches are the keys for Oliver, the 24-year-old southpaw who was a second-round pick by the Tigers in 2009. He split time between three levels in 2010, his first season of pro ball, including a five-game tryout with Detroit, where he was 0-4 with a 7.36 ERA.
He began last season with Toledo and was impressive early, posting a 4-2 record and 2.89 ERA with 43 strikeouts in his first seven starts. He was promoted to the Tigers at the end of May and, after struggling with Detroit, returned to the Hens and continued to struggle. At season's end he was 8-12 with a 4.71 ERA.
While his 143 whiffs in 147 innings was third-best in the International League, Oliver also walked 80, the second-highest total in the IL.
That high walk total didn't deter Baseball America from making Oliver the fifth-ranked prospect in the Tigers' organization.
"He's starting to figure some things out," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said of Oliver during spring training. "Whether it be at this level or Triple-A [when he figures it out], who knows? We don't know, but I do like what I'm seeing."
Wilk is the opposite of Oliver, who relies on a high-octane fastball and a slider that can be a plus pitch at times. Wilk commands four pitches -- fastball, cutter, change-up and curve -- and uses his ability to read hitters to get outs.
That combination has proved to be effective throughout the 24-year-old's career. An 11th-round draft pick in 2009 out of Long Beach State, Wilk has a career minor league mark of 23-12 with a 2.62 ERA in 59 starts, with 257 strikeouts and just 45 walks in more than 343 career innings.
Last season he spent most of the year with the Hens and was 8-6 with a 3.24 ERA. He also pitched in five games with the Tigers and a 5.40 ERA.
"Adam didn't pitch in a lot of crucial games, but he gave us solid innings when he did pitch," Jones said of Wilk, who is ranked as the Tigers' 22nd-best prospect. "He has multiple pitches.
"He threw very well in spring training last year. That opened a lot of eyes, and it made it easy for us to bring him up last year when we had a need."
Smyly will begin this season in Toledo, but he won't stay long. The lefty will make one start for the Mud Hens before the Tigers call him up to be their fifth starter.
It's a rapid rise for the 22-year-old, who has just one year's pro experience. But last year Smyly was named the Tigers' minor-league pitcher of the year after tearing up two levels, going 7-3 with a 2.58 ERA in 14 starts for Hi-A Lakeland and posting a 4-3 mark with a 1.18 ERA in eight appearances for Double-A Erie.
Smyly, a second-round draft pick out of Arkansas in 2010, followed that up with an impressive stint with Team USA in the fall, throwing 17 shutout innings split between the World Cup and the Pan American Games. Baseball America ranks Smyly as the Tigers' third-best prospect entering this season.
"I haven't seen a lot of Drew, but he had a tremendous year last year," Jones said before spring training. "I've heard a lot of good things about Drew, especially his command.
"He's not overpowering, but he commands the strike zone pretty well."
Crosby can throw as hard as any of the pitchers the Mud Hens have, but his biggest concern has been injury issues that have plagued him through much of his career.
A fifth-round draft pick in 2007, the southpaw injured his elbow while pitching in the instructional league. Tommy John surgery caused him to miss most of the 2008 season, but he bounced back to post a 10-4 record and 2.41 ERA with Lo-A West Michigan in 2009, earning him the Tigers' minor league pitcher of the year.
Left elbow inflammation knocked him out for most of 2010, but last season he was 9-7 with a 4.10 ERA in 25 starts for Double-A Erie. He was given an early shot at the Tigers' fifth starter role this spring before being sent to the Hens in mid-March, but he made an impression on Leyland in his brief time in big-league camp.
"From what I've seen, he's got a chance to be something special," Leyland said of Crosby in spring training. "He's got a power arm, he's got a good breaking ball, he's got a good changeup. All his stuff's good. It's a matter of commanding it a little bit better. But he's got a real high ceiling."
Crosby had 121 strikeouts in 131⅔ innings with the SeaWolves last season, but also issued 77 walks. Baseball American considers Crosby the Tigers' fourth-best prospect entering this season.
"This guy could be a really, really good major league pitcher," Leyland said. "He's a little crude yet, obviously, but he's got a lot of equipment. He should have a big future."
So should Turner, who is expected to begin the year with Hi-A Lakeland but join the Mud Hens soon after. The only right-hander in the group, Turner was the ninth overall pick in the 2009 draft and was named the Tigers' best prospect this year and last.
While he struggled in three starts for Detroit last season, posting an 8.53 ERA, he was impressive in three starts for the Mud Hens, going 1-0 with a 3.12 ERA. The 6-5, 210-pounder struck out 20 and walked just three in 17⅓ innings.
Arm soreness kept Turner from competing for the Tigers' opening in the starting rotation this spring, and the combination of youth and inexperience are the only things expected to slow his ascent to Detroit.
Turner is in just his third professional season, and on May 21 he will turn 21 years old.
"At 20 years old, Jacob is very, very talented -- but very inexperienced," Jones said before spring training began.
The same could be said for all of the pitchers in the Mud Hens' rotation this year.